New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi, or to give it its Maori name Te Tiriti o Waitangi, was signed at Waitangi on the North Island in February 1840 between the British settlers under Lieutenant Governor William Hobson (when NZ was technically part of New South Wales) and the Maori chiefs or rangatira. It is actually formed of nine sheets (the original and eight copies), which were then variously taken around the country to be signed by the rangatira. Eight copies are in Maori and one is in English.
It was meant to establish the fundamentals for land ownership, but its current condition (being variously rat eaten, fire and water damaged) perhaps more accurately reflects the way it has been viewed since (the Treaty agreement was broken within six weeks of signing!). This cartoon sums up one view of the Treaty’s value.
However, 175 years on it is now viewed by both Maori and Pakeha (white people) as the founding document of New Zealand, and one which reflects in a far deeper way than the document itself how New Zealanders should live together.
Working with the NZ Department of Internal Affairs over the last eighteen months, I have been lucky enough to be involved in advising on the conservation issues of a major new interpretive display of the document along with two other key New Zealand historic documents; the 1835 Declaration of Independence of the Northern Chiefs and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition (did you know that NZ was the first country in the world to allow women to vote?).
It all began with a big get together in Wellington at Archives New Zealand (who have responsibility for the care of the documents, though the new display will be over the road in the National Library). And it gave me a crash course on the political dimension of the Treaty as well as the opportunities this new exhibition provides. The purpose was to allow as wide a range of stakeholders as possible to have their say in how the documents are presented. A neat forum was used to do this, namely by setting up nine tables with butcher’s paper and pens, each covering a different topic, such as:
- What are the stories we should be telling?
- What will the experience be like?
- What do we want our visitors to come away thinking?
The 45 participants circulated in an ordered program, with constant discussion and ideas bouncing back and forth, as one comment generated another thought. The session was interspersed with short five minute talks about particular aspects of the documents, and I came away buzzing with the opportunities this project provides (and the complexities that arise as a result). One nice idea I liked was to pose this question to visitors: If they were a rangatira, would they have signed then? And would they sign now?
One aspect that became very clear in the planning from day one was the embedment of the digital aspects of the project. New Zealand has been a leader in the cultural digital space, through Digital New Zealand ensuring a national perspective through gathering and interlinking the country’s culture digitally. And this project showed me how they do it – How this exhibition will be experienced online; how it will link with the physical visit; how online teaching materials are put together; how new stories inspired by it online are captured; and even how virtual reality technology may place visitors in the historical event.
The exhibition is due to open early next year and is going to be a game changer in how to present and interpret a country’s most significant documents.